Detective Narrative

If you are going to write a report, or an essay, or a dissertation, or a thesis and you ask for advice on how it should be structured, the advice you usually get goes something like, "Tell 'em what you are going to tell 'em, tell 'em it and then tell em' what you told 'em. But actually, I think this is bad advice. The better advice is make it like a detective story. Don't tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, but leave a denouement, a punchline, a new finding or a twist to the tale, but of course one which is utterly consistent with everything you've been saying. it may look like a denouement you had not thought of, but then check the story. The compelling evidence leads to it. So where does the advice about telling 'em what you will tell 'em, telling 'em it and telling 'em what you told them come from? Well it is a crude way of saying be consistent, keep a logical thread all the way through.
Umberto Eco is a European philosopher and a novelist, and he says everything in life is really like a detective story. What is a detective story? It is like a whole series of expected and unexpected events which, when you put them together, lead to a denouement. And if you didn't expect it to quite turn out like that, well the detective is on hand to put all the pieces together and produce the compelling result. Elementary my dear Watson. And the villain replies, "It's a fair cop, guv." It turns out that everything had that essential logical connection which just needed uncovering. And if we think about it, a lot of life's experiences seem to string together just like that. We read back into our own lives a continuing narative of parents, childhood, upbringing, successes, failures, sex life or lack of such, relationships, friendships or lack of them, interests, etc., and we can see it as a consistent whole. Here is me, my life story: a kind of theme develops and it is our own biography. Our beliefs draw from experiences and also our beliefs guide our experiences too, both how we understand experiences and even what we go on to experience.
Of course here lies one view about the existence of God. And it certainly is a valid viewpoint. If your life has a meaning, you can talk about a calling. Ordinands look at their life experiences, the paths their life has taken and with a little leap of faith say, "I think I have been called by God." Florence Nightingale is part of the Unitarian hall of fame. A great grandfather gave up his right to Savannah in America to demonstrate his support for the American War of Independence. Her maternal father was a leading campaigner against slavery, for Catholic Emancipation and on factory workers' pay. What about her life? She was a society girl, and completely bored in her tiny domestic world and tedious demands of socialising; it made her, I think, a little neurotic, and she was desperate to know what God was calling her to do. At one stage abroad she participated very intensely in Roman Catholic Mass. Her emotional passion for women and not men meant that she never would marry, and so was able to give her whole life's work in medical supervision. So here was a life which like a good novel had a thread of meaning from beginning to end, from the tedium to the denouement where she gained great influence over the development of military medical care. It was as though her life vocation was indeed called by God as she wanted.
Whether we see our lives having a consistency about them as divinely given or not, they are like detective stories and it is we who set up the plot and see the outcome. We read back into our lives this consistency we find. There may actually be less consistency than we would like because, after all, detective stories are just too neat. But we are definitely the authors of the meaning of the story as such if, like a good imaginative author, we cannot control all the characters and situations, especially if in actual life each book is being written by many authors at once.
If I want to use the word God, then I do so in this postmodern sense, that it is about a narrative stream, and meaning chosen by us for life, and postmodernism is all about the detective stories by which we all understand and author our lives. We are talking here about grand narratives, stories, and if we are to live by some kind of ethic or life purpose then we do so around some sort of additional narrative. Large religious systems provide narratives, so do the kind of personal religions we each might develop, drawing on those systematic narratives. And if the narrative is to be any good it must have a consistent theme running right through it.
My own narrative to draw upon starts something like this. What is the central fact of life experience and therefore problem in human living. I suppose the central, awful, dilemma, with religious impact, is that nothing is permanent. The universe is not static but expanding and ultimately should  contract and not a jot of conscious existence will survive it's crunch. And then there is our own lives of which we know only one fact: whether it goes on to another realm, reappears in this one, or simply decays as biodegradable dust, this life ends. Or we might have a favourite car and give it a name and, oh dear, it rusts, goes wrong, and it's good bye to our favourite car. Everything, absolutely everything, comes and goes. It is horrible, we just do not want it. We want things that are comfortable to go on being the same. This is why, I think, people do believe in God and life after death - they want comfort and to go on. It is quite natural. But I wish to suggest that the central religious task is to try - not easy - to come to terms with impermanence.
If you put your faith in material things, or mum or dad, or the car, or your job, your sexual partner and any of all the rest, then sooner or later you come a cropper. Instead you have to take refuge in something which will deliver rather than leave you to come a cropper, which comes to terms with material impermanence. And the answer is in seeking out a kind of motiveless, serene, cool happiness. You find it in an active detachment, in a playing light with the world and its detective stories which have a final page, and in acquiring a kind of mental peace which is not dependent on a material world or the world of change. And suppose you go down this road? Well it needs, really does need, active spirituality. It needs contemplation and meditation, and more than anything it needs active awareness. The reason for this is because it is not easy to remove attachment to impermanent things.
Detachment requires awareness in all things we do: "Why am I doing this particular action?" is a constant question. One is looking for a cool innocence. It does not need the innocence of a baby who can make no moral decisions, but the innocence of someone who can make active moral decisions. In other words, it needs active compassion. But if you are detached from impermanent things, if you pursue a loving kindness for its own sake, a motiveless compassion pursued to maybe an achievable limit will lead to a kind of bliss. If you achieve bliss you achieve it with attachement to nothing at all. The world is but a passing fancy. In other words, bliss is found at a point of nothingness.
What I have been describing, of course, is Buddhism, or at least a version of it. Oh, let's forget about karma and reincarnation. I recently attended a local group and it was about being reborn until karma is developed. It is an alternative explanation of the universe of reality. For example, there is no co-incidence, only where you are on the road to bliss. No one who survives in a bomb blast or a collapsed building does so coincidentally. They survive because of their state of karma. Sorry, but this whole viewpoint is very morally suspect and rather blows the order and logic of the argument.
But what I have been describing is a logical narrative, a detective story and is consistent, not beginning with a universe of reincarnation and karma, but the central problem especially of westerners today of clinging to material things, money, sex, desire, urban isolation. These are the murder events of the detective story, and then piecing together the clues in spirituality you end up with the denouement of nirvana. This is the Buddhist detective story.
It is, too, from a point of view of another author, a liberal and, dare I say, a Unitarian detective story because it promotes the Unitarian detective's techniques of reason, individualism and evolution of belief and practice and personal development. The convenant service is its own narrative structure of coming in, being of one heart and going out with thanksgiving back into the world. And there is the Unitarian's central concern with a spirituality which promotes the quality of life, just as in the covenant statement. Which is why I am here, really.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful